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When there were far fewer people around, far fewer laws and regulations, when the legal speed limit was 75 mph, when gas was cheap, when driving was a pleasure, if you owned a hot machine you could point the grill down an empty road and go!

Remembering Roger Huntington

Roger Huntington
In 1980 I had a contract to write The Big ‘Little GTO’ Book and although teaching more classes than usual, I spent a great deal of time doing research on the project. Wanted to talk with people who were involved with the Pontiac GTO. Roger Huntington’s name was on the short list because he had road tested the GTO for various magazines and had worked with Jim Wangers, the master promoter, in promoting the GTO.

I’m not certain when I realized that Huntington lived in Lansing, Michigan, but I must have known that for several years before I tried to contact him. I find it strange that I didn’t call him or run into him at a car event, since I worked at Michigan State University at the time, but I was terribly busy with my teaching and academic activities, plus my family, and although I remained interested in cars, that interest took a back seat to other things.

I found Huntington’s house, a tall two-story older house with a full front porch high above ground level. I later realized that his was the house in which he had grown up and had lived in all his life. I climbed the steps, knocked on the door, and then turned the knob and let myself in. It took a minute before I realized why Huntington had not opened the door himself. He sat at a large table in the dining room and before him was an old Remington typewriter, the kind where the keys have a four-inch throw. It wasn’t until I crossed the front room and approached him that I realized that he was sitting in a wheelchair. He greeted me but kept his hands at his sides. I was nervous and more than slightly confused. I had been reading his work for over 30 years and there had never been a hint of his handicap. He went to the Indy 500 every year, roaming the pits and talking with the drivers and mechanics; he had road tested every kind of muscle car, slamming shifts as that neck-popping acceleration sent a heavy car through the quarter mile at over 100 mph. And yet the person I saw before me seemed frail, the skin on his balding head nearly translucent, and as he rubbed the stubble of gray-white hair over his ear with one hand I saw that the fingers were turned inward like a claw. How, I wondered, did he type?

Perhaps my confusion showed, because for the first half hour he was guarded and distant. Trying to ingratiate myself, I mentioned how much I had enjoyed his work over the years and that I still had a copy of the Ford V-8 speed manual that I had bought 30 years earlier. He did not seem impressed or at any rate he did not discuss it further. No doubt he had talked that book out of his system; it was old work and he had gone beyond that flathead stuff. That was what I inferred. A writer, Huntington, wanted to get down to business. He wondered whether I had a contract and who would publish the book. Had I ever seen an HOV engine? Who else had I spoken to about the GTO? Had I talked with Jim Wangers or DeLorean? I said that I talked with George DeLorean, not John, who was so busy with his failing car business and illegal drug deals that I was reluctant to bother him.

I realized that Huntington was testing me, trying to learn what qualified me to write a book about the Pontiac GTO, which was of course, a reasonable question. Perhaps I gave the correct answers or perhaps he was warming to the subject because he began to speak more freely and even gave a hint of a smile when I mentioned something that Wangers had told me. I don’t remember whether I asked if he minded if I use the tape recorder or if I simply turned it on and nudged it closer to him across the table that separated us. I pulled out my list and asked the first question on it hoping to get through all the questions before he dismissed me.

Eventually the GTO book got published and it was a success; it was in print for 18 years and sold 70,000 copies, fantastic figures for an automotive book. I called and spoke with Huntington two or three times, just writers chatting.

Then I got the idea that I wanted to interview him. Would he agree, I wondered. I had talked with numerous car guys on tape but I had never actually interviewed anyone. I guess I wanted to interview Huntington because he was such a public name but most of his readers had no idea that he was working from a wheelchair. Huntington seemed to feel it was time to reveal his handicap too. He spoke freely, revealing that he had been injured in a diving accident when he was 15 years old and had suffered a spinal injury that crippled him for life. He noted that in the 1940s there was no help for handicapped people, and he was schooled at home. On his own he studied engineering and technical subjects.

By 1944, when he was 18, he began writing airplane articles and had some success. But by 1948 the bottom fell out of that market and he began writing automotive articles for Speed Age. As new rod and custom magazines appeared he found new markets, and by 1952 he was earning enough to support himself. As more hot rods appeared in Michigan, Huntington began road testing them – on public highways. He became a member of the Pan Draggers of Lansing. Roy Peterson remembers that the club would put Huntington and his wheelchair in the back of a big touring car and they’d cruise Michigan State College ogling women!

A question I had for Huntington went back to an article he’d written for Rod & Custom in 1952, where he claimed that the top speed in the quarter mile would be 166 mph – at that time cars were going 140 mph. He admitted that he had been wrong! But he pointed out that “we knew nothing of rubber science in those days.” The interview was published right away in Street Rodder and was reprinted in my book, Hot Rodder!. Huntington was happy with the interview.
Huntington died a few years later, on August 24, 1989; he was 63 years old.

The full essay of "Remembering Roger Huntington" was originally published the column Flashing Back in Goodguys Gazette, 2014.  An expanded version is available in Albert Drake's latest book "Reflections in a Spinner Hubcap," September, 2020.